The historic U.S. Customs House by the Whirlpool Bridge in Niagara Falls will soon be home to the city's newest cultural attraction. The facility is going to highlight the critical role residents played in helping African Americans on their journey from slavery to freedom.
After many years of research and planning, a grand opening is set for the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center.
"It's an experiential museum filled with interactive engaging graphics. We'll have tours. There's media components, visual interactive animations and also scenic build outs of some of the important Underground Railroad sites that no longer exist here in Niagara Falls," said Ally Spongr. She is the Center's Director and Curator and says most people are unaware of all of the Underground Railroad activity that took place in the early to mid 1800s in Niagara Falls.
"This location was so important in the Underground Railroad because of the proximity to Canada. It was a border crossing, so that freedom seekers that journeyed so far from the South reached here, this was the very end of their journey, to get to freedom in Canada. And they had to cross one more river, right at the base of the falls, to be able to do that," Spongr said.
The freedom seekers, she says, were helped by the African American waiters who worked at the city's prominent hotels.
"Often times southern guests would come up from the South and they would bring their enslaved servants with them. And the waiters would help essentially get them out of the Cataract House just to cross the river," Spongr said.
There's also a recreation of the railroad bridge, built in 1855, that she says, made it even easier for freedom seekers, including Harriet Tubman, to make it to Canada. Spongr says their primary audience will be area residents.
"We want our local community in the immediate area of Niagara Falls, but also the larger Western New York community, to become invested in the story, and in our site, and in the work that we're doing," Spongr said.
She says the millions of tourists who visit Niagara Falls each year are an "awesome bonus." A ribbon cutting is planned for the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, May 4th.